65. Taiji Video Logs and Next Gen Thoughts

I’ve started a new video series in addition to the normal written development logs. This will hopefully provide a more exciting and fun avenue to show and talk about what’s involved in working on the game, and perhaps just some of my thoughts on game design in general. These for the most part should get posted here, but you can subscribe to the YouTube channel if you want to know as soon as they go up.

Bonus: Thoughts on Next Gen Consoles

(8 out of 10 gamers couldn’t tell which of the above was a next-gen game)

I was planning to talk about the tonally strange but visually impressive Unreal Engine 5 demo on my development stream yesterday, but since the stream ran into technical difficulties and didn’t happen, I’ll say it here instead.

Maybe I’m only noticing this for the first time now because I’m actively developing this game while new consoles are being announced, but it feels like there is a uniquely large gap between how developers and gamers feel about the new hardware. Gamers seem largely underwhelmed, whereas developers are excited by the prospects.

This can mostly be explained by the differences in what these two customers want out of a new gaming console. Developers want the hardware to make it easier for them to make games. Gamers just want to be sold on graphics or gameplay that pushes past the limits of what they’ve seen before.

On the first point, it’s easy to make a case that both Microsoft and Sony are providing a way forward for developers. Microsoft is selling a beefy PC for your living room, and beefy PCs are easier to get games running well on. Sony is selling a slightly less beefy PC, but with some serious storage tricks up its sleeve that can only really happen with bespoke game-playing hardware.

For gamers, well, it’s harder to make the case.

This is partly developers’ fault. We have gotten so good at working with limited hardware that it’s a challenge to show the difference between real-time global illumination and traditional baked lightmaps or between dynamically decimated hero assets and manually authored LODs. There isn’t much difference as far as the result is concerned, however one of the primary benefits of working with better hardware and technology is that developers can get to the same results much easier and faster.

Pushing the frontiers of gameplay or photorealism is only partly about the hardware. Hardware matters for sure–you can’t run everything on a potato–but innovation is increasingly the thing that pushes boundaries.
A good example of graphics innovation being more important than hardware is the introduction of Physically-Based Materials over the past decade. This precipitated a giant leap forward in average visual fidelity for games, not so much because the hardware was more powerful, but because the pipeline for authoring the artwork was much improved.

Although an argument could be made that additional processing power allowed for shaders that were complex enough to more accurately simulate physical phenomena, this innovation in material authoring and rendering didn’t occur any earlier in the film industry either. So it seems like more of a process innovation than having access to better hardware.

As another way of saying the same thing: It was possible before PBM to make games and films that had very realistic looks to them, but success required artists with tons of technical experience and skill. By changing the tools, it became much easier for even an inexperienced artist to produce an output that looks very realistic.

I think this is the type of progress on display in the Unreal demo and is also largely lost on the average gamer. For them, it’s simply about the results.

As for gameplay innovation, that is a much more challenging problem, and unless you are going specifically for a game design about verisimilitude (i.e. Grand Theft Auto), it’s a problem that is largely divorced from the visual one. Of the game designs that I feel were most impactful over the past decade, I think rather few of them would be technical powerhouses. Some of them (Dark Souls) are downright technical messes. So it’s hard to say exactly what feels “next generation” in terms of game design until you see it, and it’s hard to draw a direct connection between these design leaps and console generations.

Well, I’m certainly excited about a new hardware generation. There’s still something about it that reminds me of the old days when you’d read in a magazine about something Nintendo was cooking up in Japan. But it remains to be seen whether or not the next console generation will convince as many people to pull out their wallets on launch day as this previous one did. It is challenging to convince gamers that they need new hardware simply because it makes things easier for developers.

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